An Appeal Board established by the Minister of Land Affairs and Agriculture has overturned a landmark decision by a South African GMO authority on 15 June 2006, to refuse the experimentation of sorghum, a prized African heritage crop.

The Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR), has now been given the go-ahead to proceed with the development of ‘Super Sorghum’ in a containment level three facility. The research is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project. The Gates Foundation is also heavily funding the ‘New Green Revolution for Africa’, aimed at industrialising African agriculture. The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), which objected to the initial application by the CSIR, has condemned the decision, stating that experimentation with GM sorghum will inevitably result in the contamination of Africa’s prized sorghum heritage.

Haidee Swanby of the African Centre for Biosafety, comments: ‘Sorghum is a key staple crop for over 500 million people on the continent. The risks posed by GM sorghum to wild and weedy relatives cannot be tolerated at all and the granting of this permit is tantamount to a licence to taint Africa’s heritage.’

The ACB points out that the ABS project is being developed for commercial release and the CSIR will be seeking permission for field trials soon. The original objection of the GMO authority of 15 June 2006 was based on concerns regarding contamination of Africa’s biodiversity. Containment in a level three facility will not negate these concerns for field trails, and the risks to African varieties remain.

Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss, programme officer for GRAIN Africa, an organisation that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity, concludes, ‘It is not for the South African government to decide, on behalf of the rest of Africa, that they may approve an industrial project which will result in the inevitable contamination of Africa’s astounding genetic diversity in sorghum. This crop has been developed and cared for by farmers for over 5 000 years.’

For more information contact: African Centre for Biosafety, Researcher and Outreach Officer